NY Opens the Door to SEL

In August, the New York State Education Department published Social Emotional Learning: Essential for Learning, Essential for Life, a detailed document calling for all NYS schools to incorporate social emotional learning into their daily instructional practice with fidelity and district-wide support.  The linked Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks, however, are voluntary, and the authors point to sources of multiple barriers to success, not least among them that “[t]here are subgroups who believe that social emotional development, instruction, and learning falls outside of the purview of the public schools and should not be included in classroom curriculum.” Thus, realizing these aspirational goals will require lots of grassroots work and struggle.

A quote from Linda Darling-Hammond sets the tone:

I have no doubt that the survival of the human race depends at least as much on the cultivation of social and emotional intelligence, as it does on the development of technical knowledge and skills. Most educators believe that the development of the whole child is an essential responsibility of schools, and this belief is what has motivated them to enter the profession.

Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, 2015

SED’s call to action is the latest step in a decade-long process. In 2009, NYS legislation called for establishment of SEL guidelines through collaboration between SED and the State Office of Mental Health. In 2016, New York joined a CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) initiative and adopted CASEL’s definition and competencies.

CASEL defines SEL as the process through which “children, youth, and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

The SEL goals are:

    1. Develop self-awareness and self-management skills essential to success in school and in life;
    1. Use social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships;
  1. Demonstrate ethical decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.

Fleshing out the SEL definition, the CASEL competencies are:

    • Self-Awareness: understanding one’s emotions, personal goals, and values;
    • Self-Management: skills and attitudes that facilitate the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors;
    • Social Awareness: the ability to take the perspective of and have respect for those with different backgrounds or cultures, and to empathize and feel compassion;
    • Relationship Skills: communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking help when needed; and
  • Responsible Decision Making: the ability to consider ethical standards, safety concerns, and make accurate behavioral assessments to make realistic evaluations of the consequences of various actions, and to take the health and well-being of self and others into consideration.

SED urges schools to implement multi-tiered support systems such as Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) that incorporate universal, secondary and tertiary interventions. Universal interventions are proactive and preventive. Secondary and tertiary behavioral interventions are more specifically targeted to individual students’ needs for support.

SED links its goals to the research on SEL’s importance in improving all students’ learning, with particular emphasis on its role in establishing equity, and meeting the needs of English Learners, Students with Disabilities and other students with special needs. The document identifies implicit bias as a major obstacle to achieving equity and looks to Culturally Responsive Practices (CRP), which require skill in all SEL competencies, as a means of managing it. Farinde-Wu, Glover & Williams (2017) showed CRP to be effective in improving student academic performance and life opportunities across content areas. CRP utilizes an assets-based perspective and leverages students’ cultural context to make learning relevant and increase engagement (M. Hurley, interview, May 2017).

A meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in K-12 schools (Durlak et al., 2011) indicated that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated better academic performance, improved attitudes and behaviors, fewer negative behaviors, and reduced emotional distress. A number of studies have shown long term positive effects of prosocial skills on adult outcomes, including college graduation, financial well-being, physical health, and avoidance of substance abuse and involvement with the police.

Many children experience a number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These may include: physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental separation, divorce, or conflict; incarcerated or deported household member; homelessness; and household mental illness. The cumulative stress of ACEs “can affect students’ attention, processing of information, memory, and learning, undermine the development of language and communication skills, thwart the establishment of a coherent sense of self, compromise the ability to attend to classroom tasks and instructions, interfere with the ability to organize and remember new information, and hinder a student’s grasp of cause- and-effect relationships, all of which are necessary to process information effectively. Neurobiological changes in the brains of young people exposed to severe and/or persistent trauma leave them in a constant state of stress in which they are highly susceptible to ‘triggers’ in their environment.” It is critical for educators to be cognizant of the impact of ACEs when responding to students’ behavior and to provide proactive scaffolding within the school environment, utilizing trauma-informed practices such as those found in the National Center for Traumatic Stress Network toolbox.

Not surprisingly, SEL practices help to alleviate behavioral issues that frustrate schools, teachers, parents and students on a daily basis. In financial terms, a 2015 Teachers College study found an average of $11 return for every $1 invested in evidence-based SEL programs. (The six SEL programs in the study were the 4Rs Program (Reading, Writing, Respect, & Resolution); Positive Action; Life Skills Training; Second Step; Responsive Classroom; and Sweden’s Social and Emotional Training, which has a similar curriculum to the United States’ Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) program).

SED says that it is now poised to implement SEL for all students statewide and is developing a School Climate Index and A Guide to Systemic Whole School Implementation, in company with a series of school district-developed crosswalks aligning SEL competencies with learning standards in the content areas.

Genuine whole school implementation to the depth SED proposes will require a serious commitment and coordination of district and school supports in every area of school life including school culture and classroom environment; professional development; discipline/restorative practices; parent outreach and engagement; student support services; personnel policies; and alignment with out-of-school-time programs.

To support educators’ capacity to develop their own social emotional competencies and those of students, “educators need access to best practices in implementation and evaluation, including supports and resources on SEL that are integrated into existing teacher evaluation and professional development systems.” Revision and implementation of new or revised benchmarks will require a serious commitment of time and money.   

SED acknowledges potential barriers to statewide implementation. Schools and school systems tend to be conservative and hierarchical. A fundamental shift in focus toward SEL will require both advocacy and activism.

Furthermore, SED’s goals leave open the essential questions such as:  What, for example, are “ethical decision-making skills” and how can they be taught most effectively and equitably? What happens when someone tries to teach ethics in a school or district that is not itself ethical? What happens when encouraging students (or teachers) to ask hard ethical questions leads to challenges to authority? And what degree of SEL will help live up to Linda Darling Hammond’s challenge that we may be talking about the “survival of the human race,” and, perhaps we should add, of the planet?

These are fundamental questions with which individual districts, schools and teachers around the state and the country are grappling. Programs such those in the Teachers College study; Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility’s Restore360; Facing History and Ourselves’ programs; Institute for Humane Education’s Solutionary Program;  and Brown University’s Choices invite students to pursue ethical solutions to a range of problems, from the global to the classroom.

Geoff Renaud of The Ethical Community Charter School–Jersey City (affiliated with EIEN), tells of students’ shock at realizing, during Facing History’s Weimer Republic unit, that they had actually endorsed the Nazi Party’s platform when offered unlabeled choices among German parties of the time. Brett Schneider, principal of Bronx Collaborative High School, says, “The magic of [Morningside Center’s] restorative circles is that they allow students to be heard, and they open up trust. When there is a fight, students know they won’t be demonized. They have a moment of grace when they understand what has happened and why. It can be life-changing.”

The challenge is to transform schools so these programs, and others like them, move from being the exception to being the rule.

Jon MoscowCo-Executive Director of Ethics In Education Network, is a strategic planning and development consultant to community-based and educational organizations. He was executive director of Parents Coalition for Education in New York City and has helped to found and develop three student-centered schools in the City. He serves on a number of boards, including Brotherhood/Sister Sol and has a Master’s from Bank Street College of Education.

Critical Care, Cultural Humility and the Reflective Practitioner

As a social work educator trained as an education researcher, my understanding of the work of practitioners in schools and other community settings is informed by a number of conceptual frameworks. My practice career as a school social worker and my identity as a Latinx/Diasporican scholar have also informed the research questions I have pursued. Conducting research on racial justice initiatives in the field of child welfare, I have been interested in strategies for supporting the development of skills for culturally responsive practice, deepening engagement and improving outcomes with youth from racially and culturally marginalized families and communities. In this essay I reflect upon key concepts that have emerged in my work that offer insight into how teachers and social workers can strengthen their ability to address racial disparities in their practice.

Early in my academic career, I studied Latino youth and their experiences of teacher caring in schools (De Jesús, 2005; Antrop-Gonzalez & De Jesús, 2006). Drawing upon the literature on caring in education, I synthesized a body of theory that argued marginalized students engage with and respond to educators who authentically care about them rather than with educators who subscribe to a notion of aesthetic caring – the idea that students must demonstrate that they care about learning first (by exemplars of academic performance) in order to gain the recognition of educators. Angela Valenzuela, in her book Subtractive Schooling: US and Mexican Students and the Politics of Caring (1999) asserts that a prerequisite for Latino students to engage in learning is that teachers convey they care about them as individuals and are affirming of their identity. Emerging from this analysis, my colleague Rene Antrop-González and I advanced the term critical care to describe the nature of relationships that teachers developed with students. Based on our research in two Latinx high schools we asserted that teacher caring behavior was rooted in a critical analysis of the learning conditions confronted by marginalized youth and unlike teacher caring behavior motivated by pity (Ay! Bendito caring),[1] critical care was characterized by an emphasis on high academic expectations and the provision of academic and interpersonal support. Critical care provided a deeper understanding of the nature of motivations and relationships between teachers and marginalized students (Antrop-González & De Jesús, 2006).[2]

More recently, my research has focused on understanding strategies to support professionals in the field of child welfare to enhance their knowledge and skill in working with youth and families of color with the goal of reducing racial and ethnic disproportionality.[3]In social work and many other professions, this work, historically, has been organized under the construct of cultural competence. Cultural Competence refers to an integrated knowledge base and skill set which enables professionals to work respectfully and effectively with individuals, families, and communities from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds (De Jesús, 2012).[4]Cultural competence has been operationalized as supporting practitioners in developing: (1) awareness of their own cultural values, biases, and position in established power structures and the impact of these relationships with clients, (2) knowledge of diverse people, their needs and attitudes; and (3) skills to implement culturally appropriate interventions (Sue & Sue, 2003,Danso, 2016).

A number of critiques of cultural competence have also been advanced – focusing on the neglect of structural or critical theoretical analysis that illuminates unequal power relationships and the functions of social control enacted by professionals (Ortega & Faller, 2011; Garran & Rozas, 2013; Danso, 2016). This gap contributes to misconceptions about culture and stereotyping which may encourage a false sense of confidence in workers about their knowledge of the cultural identities of racialized groups(Ortega & Faller, 2011). In addition, use of the term competence is problematic in that it is often misinterpreted to convey the false idea that mastery of a culture can be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge or attending specialized trainings (Tervalon & Murray Garcia, 1998; Ortega & Faller, 2011; Danso, 2016). Acquisition of knowledge is a necessary but insufficient condition to work effectively with children and families of color. As Tervalon and Murray Garcia (1998) observe, “an isolated increase in knowledge without a consequent change in attitude or behavior is of questionable value” (p. 119). They introduced the concept of cultural humility to invite their fellow physicians to develop the flexibility and humility to “say when they truly do not know” and to access resources to enhance their practice. They also sought to address power imbalances in the patient–physician relationship through “life-long commitment to self-awareness and advocacy in addressing health disparities” (p. 118).

A growing body of scholars suggest that our professional emphasis on knowledge must be accompanied by a change in attitudes toward people of color and immigrants in ways that enable practitioners to partner with individuals and families in understanding their cultural identities. In this regard, Hook and colleagues (2013) define cultural humility as the “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of the identity that are important to the [Person]” (p. 2). This emphasizes the concept of intersectionality — the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. Intersectionality theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity (Crenshaw, 1995; Collins, 2015). Ortega and Faller (2011) advance an intersectional cultural humility perspective that argues “intersecting group memberships affect people’s expectations, quality of life, capacities as individuals and parents, and life chances.” (p. 43). They further articulate a framework for racial equity practice, observing that it is the responsibility of the worker to bridge differing perspectives by employing four distinct cultural humility skills (active listening, reflecting, reserving judgment, and entering the client’s world) which have found support in the social work literature but are especially important in enacting culturally responsive practice (p. 37).

With colleagues from New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services I studied the impact of a Racial Equity and Cultural Competency Case Consultation Model utilized to assist preventive service providers in developing and refining their awareness, knowledge and skills to address racial disproportionality in their work (De Jesús et. al. 2016). This model, which is a form of group supervision, supports practitioners to present cases in order to discuss dynamics of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and their (reciprocal) influence on the case. Facilitated by an experienced clinician, the model asks the presenter to discuss at length his or her own intersectional identity including those of other members of a team working with a family before discussing/presenting the identified case. In this regard, how the identities of the worker and other members of the team may influence decision making is considered an integral part of the case being presented. This model enables workers and facilitators to interrogate racial power dynamics as they may play themselves out on the team as well as defensive strategies utilized by both whites and people of color when discussing thorny issues of race and identity.

The qualitative component of our study found that participants in the model reported enhanced understanding of interpersonal racism, one’s own bias and assumptions, and the subtleties of racial power and privilege within professional relationships. Study participants described enactment of the skills of reserving judgment and entering the client’s world in compelling ways. These findings, while limited, suggest that approaches to professional development that foster self-awareness of one’s own identities, power, and privilege may support changes in practitioner attitudes and over time. In addition, the opportunity to engage in supportive and critical supervision to reflect upon how these identities and our experiences shape our implicit bias is an essential component of culturally responsive practice. In his seminal work The Reflective Practitioner, philosopher Donald Schön(1983) advanced a discussion of reflective practice as reflection in action and reflection on action. Schön invited us to develop the ongoing capacity to examine our motivation and behavior as professionals as we practice, as well as to do so after we act (which also prepares us before we act). The concepts of critical care, cultural humility, and intersectionality inform an evolving framework as to how reflective practice influences culturally responsive practice. The racial equity and cultural competency case consultation provides a promising structure and process for reflecting on action in order to strengthen our ability to reflect in action.



[1]Ay! bendito is a Spanish term which translates as “blessed be” and is used as an expression of pity.

[2]While I have not yet done so, I have become interested in exploring the scientific literature on emotions like empathy and sympathy as it relates to motivation as a way to deepen this explanation informed by evidence.

[3]Racial disproportionality refers to the under or overrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group along the child welfare continuum (e.g., prevention, reporting, investigation, service provision, out-of-home care, permanency) relative to its percentage in the total population (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016).

[4]This also extends to institutional and organizational policies and practices that support the reduction of health and mental health disparities through improving patient–provider communication, workforce diversity, and community engagement (De Jesús, 2012).


Antrop-González, R. & De Jesús, A. (2006). Toward a Theory of Critical Care in Urban Small School Reform: Examining Structures and Pedagogies of Caring in Two Latino Community Based Schools: The International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 19(4): 409-433.

Child Welfare Information Gateway (2016) Issue Brief:Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/issue-briefs/racial-disproportionality/

Collins, P.H.(2015) Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas. Annual Review of Sociology. 41(1): 1-20.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1995).The intersection of race and gender. In K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, & K. Thomas (Eds.), Critical race theory (pp. 357–383). New York: The New Press.

Danso, R. (2016) Cultural competence and cultural humility: A critical reflection on key cultural diversity concepts. Journal of Social Work. 0(0): 1-21.

De Jesús, A., Martinez, R., Hogan-LaMonica, J., Adams, J., & Lacey, T. (2016) Putting Structural Racism on the Table: The Implementation and Evaluation of a Novel Racial Equity and Cultural Competency Training/Consultation Model in New York City. Journal of Cultural Diversity in Social Work. 25(4), 300-319.

De Jesús, A. (2012). Cultural Competence. In Banks, J. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education.Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage Publishers.

De Jesús, A. (2005) Theoretical Perspectives on the Underachievement of Latino Students in US Schools: Toward a Framework for Culturally Additive Schooling. In Pedraza, P. & Rivera, M. (Eds.), Latino Education: An Agenda for Community Action Research. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Garran, A.M. & Rozas, L. W. (2013) Cultural Competence Revisited. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work,22: 97-111. Doi:10.1080/15313204.2013.785337

Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Owen, J., Worthington Jr., E. L., & Utsey, S. O. (2013). Cultural humility: Measuring openness to culturally diverse clients. Journal of Counseling Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0032595

Ortega, R. M., Faller, K. C. (2011) Training child welfare workers from an intersectional cultural humility perspective: A paradigm shift. Child Welfare90: 27–49.

Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. (4th edition). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: A critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Undeserved, 9, 117-125.

Valenzuela, Angela. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.




Tony De Jesús is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work and Equitable Community Practice at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, CT. Originally from the Bronx, he received his MSW at the Boston University School of Social Work and was a school social worker in Boston prior to earning an Ed.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He previously served as a researcher and administrator at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños and on the faculty at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. He is conducting a study of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families’ Racial Justice Initiative.

Holistic College and Career Advisement

I have worked in college and career counseling at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem since 2001; during the past five years I have formalized the program and spent most of my time on it. In this article, I reflect on lessons learned and make recommendations to those either working in or developing college and career advisement programs so as to ensure the broadest college access and greatest post-secondary success for low-income students of color.

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (brotherhood-sistersol.org) provides comprehensive, long-term holistic supportive services to youth ages eight to twenty-two.  Our college and career advisement aims to prepare members for post-secondary success. For some, it means entering the workforce or pursuing vocational training; for most, however, it entails  college readiness. We prepare students for college admissions and successful transitions by creating a college-focused culture.

Most Bro/Sis members are first-generation college-bound students who come from working class and/or low-income households. Too often, young people do not begin to think about college until senior year in high school. Many of our members attend overcrowded, underperforming schools and are ill-prepared to navigate the college process. To bridge this gap, we begin working with children at eight years of age through our after school elementary program. Through our Rites of Passage Program, members create chapters of The Brotherhood or Sister Sol in 6th or 7th grade and remain part of the chapter through high school; their two chapter leaders support college awareness and preparation throughout. Our After School Teen Enrichment Program serves teens 13-18 with art-based programming and curricula, including college awareness.  As soon as students enter Bro/Sis, they are exposed to a college-oriented culture. We post banners of the colleges and universities our alumni attend. On every floor, members have access to technology; there is wifi throughout the building, and there are computers on every floor.

Beginning in the sixth grade, members attend workshop series on college and career options. We encourage members to think about “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and “is college for me?” The series, which are a minimum of 4 weeks and have been as long as 11 weeks, include college tours to local CUNY and private colleges.

As the college and career adviser, I meet with seventh  and eighth graders at least once a year, and members are welcome to come talk with me as they wish. High school freshmen and sophomores meet with me at least twice a year, juniors at least four times, and seniors at least eight times, starting with a 2-week “bootcamp” prior to the start of the school year.

Until ninth grade, and even then, college doesn’t feel real to many students. We encourage ninth graders to focus on what it takes to get into colleges they might want to attend, and to map out preliminary plans.This avoids students looking seriously at their transcripts for the first time at the end of junior year, seeing low scores, and going to the equally unhelpful extremes of  “I won’t apply anywhere,” or “I’ll do really well in my senior year,” by which time, of course, it’s too late.

It is vital for me to make a long-term commitment to knowing each young person well in order to provide the most helpful advice. In their junior year, students complete a self-inventory, which I share with their chapter leaders. Members are sometimes reticent to tell me about their activities or unaware of the significance of their accomplishments. For example, one member kept telling me that there was little he could say about himself; by chance, I discovered that he had taught himself both piano and guitar. When necessary, I have in-depth conversations with  chapter leaders to learn more about members. Before coming to bootcamp, students often know only the names of colleges, sometimes because of sports teams or because these colleges recruit intensively at their high school. During and after bootcamp, the seniors research schools, and meet college reps and counselors. Students look up the academics, majors and variety of courses, resources available to students, extra-curricular activities, and, of course, how far it is, how long will it take to get home?

The application essay is, critically, the students’ opportunity to tell their stories. Getting started is frequently the most difficult part. During a summer workshop, one of the guest facilitators talks about the student’s opportunity to create a “literary masterpiece.” The transcript is one picture of the student; the essay is where students can share what is unique about them. During and after bootcamp, students read and discuss past essays, including some written by Bro/Sis alumni, and others shared by college admissions officers. We discuss and volunteer editors work with members on their own essays.

We run into lots of roadblocks in the college prep process; we’re not always successful.  Some students skip bootcamp. Some get frustrated or bored with SAT prep and don’t understand the importance of test scores to colleges that require them. One girl who had straight A’s and strong extra-curricular activities had a 1060 out of 1600 on the SAT. I encouraged her to take it again because her score would take her out of the running at several of the schools to which she was applying. She chose not to retake the exam.  It wasn’t until the spring that she realized the impact of that decision.

I help students to be realistic about where they are likely to be accepted while  encouraging them to strive to meet the requirements of schools they want to attend.  I explain to those students who are likely to be accepted only at community colleges that this can be a first step toward a four year college of their choice if they dedicate themselves to their coursework.

One of the most useful exercises is a junior year mock admissions committee. A chapter of 15 members will break into 3 groups of 5 or 5 groups of 3 to review a cross-range of simulated applications. They have to reach a consensus on admit, wait list, or deny. Each group gets the same candidates, but groups frequently reach different conclusions.

I spend a lot of time talking with students and families about finances. Often parents and students don’t focus on the cost of college as early as they should. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) now becomes available in October of the senior year. Although we hold workshops for seniors’ parents, one-on-one conversations are often more productive. However, financial aid forms are very time sensitive and time intensive. I explain the importance of the FAFSA because colleges operate on the principle that “the main financial responsibility is the parent’s.” I urge students to take advantage of scholarship opportunities. This conversation is a continuing one as it may raise issues in some households. It can be difficult for many parents to discuss questions of income, marriage legality, guardianship, and citizenship with their children.

I make sure parents and students know that if parents are undocumented and their child is a US citizen, the child is eligible for federal student aid.  Parents without social security numbers might have to indicate 000-00-0000 as their social security number. This information is confidential. Although undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, there are state and private scholarship funds earmarked for undocumented students. CUNY/SUNY provides in-state tuition rates for New York high school graduates, including those who are undocumented. That said, families need to start saving as early as possible.

We discuss issues of race, ethnicity and culture.  Many students want to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). They may not have thought about the advantages and disadvantages of going to predominantly white or racially mixed schools in terms of their personal goals. When they do visit largely white campuses, students may feel more or less comfortable than they expected and they respond in a variety of ways: “I can count the number of black people.” “I don’t want to be here.” “I’ll start a Black Student Union.”

We bring in alumni to talk about their experiences on majority white (and other) campuses. When we go on college visits, we connect with the Black Student Union and Latinx  student groups. On one college visit, we learned of a recent campus racial incident. Although some of our students were inclined to eliminate the school from their lists, I explained that how the college and its students had responded to the incident was as indicative  of the campus culture as the incident itself.

I coordinate with guidance counselors at our members’ high schools whenever possible. Most are very overburdened. Often, only the students with the highest GPAs interact in a meaningful way with the counselors. Students with low grades either don’t have as much access or don’t take the initiative  to meet with their counselors.

We collaborate with outside agencies to provide members with additional resources and opportunities. Some of the programs to which I introduce members such as “Let’s Get Ready” and “Next Level Learning,” assist with SAT Prep, while others, such as the Posse Foundation and Questbridge, provide members with opportunities to acquire full tuition scholarships.  Each year I nominate eligible members to each of these programs and support them throughout the selection process.If they are selected, I assist to remind students of details.

We recognize that getting into college is just the first step.  Our goal is not only to get members into college but to support them to ensure they graduate and are able to pursue careers of their choice.  For many of the members we serve, deciding on a career choice involves access. Can they see themselves doing a certain job? Do they know anyone in a related field?  In order to help our members see college as a possibility and their career choice as plausible, twice a year I coordinate organization-wide career days to expose members to a number of various professionals who look like them and/or share similar upbringings.  These professionals share their personal stories of triumph, successes and setbacks, giving members invaluable knowledge on what is possible. In addition, to remind students how their future is connected to the classrooms today, I attempt to show members a connect between higher education and income prospects.

To help alumni succeed in college, I have formalized how we continue to support members while they are on campus. Quarterly check-ins with alumni have been incorporated to Chapter Leaders’ calendars.  In addition to inquiring about how a member is acclimating to college and how his or her grades are this semester, I have developed a list of critical issues to address when contacting alumni such as: “Are you registered for next semester?” “Did you complete your financial aid application?”–a form that must be completed every year yet many forget. “Are there any financial gaps in aid this year?”

We want to ensure our alumni have productive summers, so in January we ask, “What are your summer plans?”   Throughout the year, I contact alumni about possible internship opportunities and gauge if there are workshops they could benefit from such as financial literacy and resume development.

I also engage our alumni to support current high school members.  Our annual college fair incorporates alumni participation. I invite alumni to represent their college to current members during their college breaks and to share their experiences during boot camp and through college transition workshops for our college-bound seniors.  

In sum, I believe that intensive and personalized college advising and continued support for first-generation college students are essential for enabling students to live up to their potential. The work can be frustrating and exhilarating, but it is incredibly important and rewarding.

Silvia A. Canales is a first- generation Afro-Latina of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage.  Silvia is College and Career Coordinator at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. She holds a Masters in Applied Psychology with a focus in Bilingual School-Counseling and Guidance from New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, Culture & Human Development.

The Art of Social Justice: Behold the beautiful struggle!

The Museum as Ethics Classroom

On February 9, 2017, a few weeks after Trump’s presidential inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington, the Brooklyn Museum held a historic gathering, entitled “Defending Immigrant Rights: A Brooklyn Call to Action.” The auditorium was packed to capacity and the energy in the room was palpable. Panel speakers included the Palestinian-American Women’s March organizer, Linda Sarsour, who was then also the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York; Murad Awawdeh, from the New York Immigration Coalition; Carl Lipscombe, from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Lisa Schreibersdorf, from Brooklyn Defenders Services; and Nayim Islam, a youth organizer from DRUM/Desis Rising Up and Moving. The speakers were phenomenal and shared collective strategies being developed in response to Trump’s policies.

At the end of the gathering the space was opened up for questions. As Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum, I was curious about how they understood the role of art in the emerging struggles for social justice. Their responses varied; one panelist mentioned being blown away by the range of artistic expression manifested in the signs created for the Women’s March, others commented on the healing, stress-relieving benefits of art-making, another mentioned using art as a carrot-stick, in other words, as an incentive to get people through the door. While their responses were sensible, I couldn’t help feeling like they missed the point of my question, and I was left trying to pin-point what it was that I felt they had missed.

What is the relationship (if any) between art and social justice? This is a particularly poignant question for art educators working in encyclopedic museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum, that hold a historic connection to colonialism, imperialism, and scientific racism. However, museums can also serve as public forums that allow for a different kind of public engagement—one that makes space not just for our rational selves but also for our emotional, sub-conscious selves which, I would argue, is part of the power of art. Spaces that allow for this kind of interaction are rare. One thing that this last presidential election has made clear is that we have lost our ability (assuming we ever had it) to engage in real dialogue, which requires not just voicing ideas, but also listening and reflecting in an open, honest, and compassionate way. The other thing this last election made clear is that information and facts are not essential for change–but feelings and perceptions are paramount.

In 1896, Booker T. Washington delivered an address at the Brooklyn Museum (then the Brooklyn Institute of Arts & Sciences) that included this statement:  “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.” It strikes me that he is recognizing “the study of art,” what today we call “arts education,” as potentially transformative. The implication is that interaction with and exploration of art can shift social sentiment by engaging our belief systems, yearnings and desires.

B.T. Washington’s ideas on what we now refer to as social justice were no doubt informed and inspired by Frederick Douglass; whose biography he wrote and published in 1899. In his 1857 “West India Emancipation” speech, Douglass declared, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” In Douglass’ view, the struggle “may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.”

So Washington, in his statement, is also inferring that in order for the study of art to make the strong less willing to oppress the weak, it must involve struggle.  For arts educators, the context for this struggle is often in the realm of uncomfortable conversations that can arise when we facilitate open-ended conversations with a piece of art. Rather than shying away from these difficult or tense encounters, we should push ourselves and the audiences with whom we engage, to investigate the contours of our discomfort, always remembering to do so with empathy. Uncomfortable conversations hold great transformational potential—this is where we strike gold!


Fast-forward 60 years. Second-wave feminists begin drawing attention to the ways in which “the personal is political.”  Then, in the 1970s and ‘80s Black and lesbian women scholars and artists bring to light the need for an  “intersectional” approach to dismantling institutions of oppression. Audre Lorde sheds light to the simple truth that, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” We no longer define “the strong” in relationship to “the weak” only in terms of race and class, but must also consider gender, sexuality and multiple other configurations of social identities. We can no longer speak in generalities about “the weak” as if the life experiences of all marginalized and oppressed people were interchangeable.

While poor, “Black rural workers” or “white proletarian men working in factories” may, indeed, represent real categories for people impacted by structural oppression, each individual within these categories holds multiple, infinitely more complex identities: being gay, trans, light-skinned, heavy-weight, disabled, a poet, etc., and each configuration is political in myriad ways. Furthermore, as traditional notions of “the weak” and “the strong” expand and are problematized, we are also faced with the reality of being able to hold in one physical body experiences of both privilege (where we benefit from the oppression of others consciously or unconsciously), while at the same time, in other social contexts, experiencing oppression ourselves. I may be a woman of color raised by a working-class single mother, but I am also a light skinned, ivy-league graduate with a U.S. passport. On the other hand, these experiences are not equally distributed amongst all. Our particular social location still makes it so that some of us bear the brunt of more experiences of structural oppression while others tend to bear more of its benefits. So, for example, while I hold a tremendous amount of privilege, I’m certain that John D. Rockefeller held more. The point is that the very notion of “social justice” becomes an active endeavor that requires constant vigilance, critical reflection of the world around us, balanced with self-reflection, and humility.

One of the books that most impacted my thinking around these ideas is Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The first time I read it, I was both inspired and irritated by his approach; inspired because Friere problematizes the idea of what it means to be a revolutionary, and irritated because his language continuously betrays a monolithic (and patriarchal) understanding of “the oppressed.” Nonetheless, this is the book that made me believe and long for revolution, in part because it is infused with an almost spiritual understanding of the liberatory potential of educational experiences. While Freire is essentially a Marxist, he not only questions the hegemony of capitalist oppression, but he is equally critical of leaders of “radical” social justice movements who feel they must indoctrinate the masses with the “correct” ideology that will liberate them. Rather, for Freire, the true educator is primarily driven by faith in students’ ability to critically see and interpret the world, which will necessarily lead them to liberation:

“The insistence that the oppressed engage in reflection on their concrete situation is not a call to armchair revolution. On the contrary, reflection–true reflection–leads to action. On the other hand, when the situation calls for action, that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection…Otherwise, action is pure activism. To achieve this praxis, however, it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and in their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue…”

Art as Imagination

So what does it mean to develop a social justice arts education practice? Fundamentally, it means to acknowledge the reality of systemic oppression and power imbalance while allowing for the emergence of new perspectives and understandings. Robin Kelley describes this as the “radical imagination”; the ability to move beyond critiquing and tearing down oppressive structures, to actually imagining what we want things to be like:

“…we must tap the well of our own collective imaginations…do what earlier generations have done: dream. Trying to envision ‘somewhere in advance of nowhere,’ as poet Jayne Cortez puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet it is a matter of great urgency. Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.”

Extremely difficult task, indeed! In part because we are inundated with models and systems that betray a deep lack of imagination: a political system that does not truly represent or engage people; a TV and film industry that repeatedly cranks out the same tired models of heteronormative romance; an economic system based on exploitation and competition; a criminal justice system founded on racism, fear and violence; representations of sex and sexuality that can’t seem to come up with anything other than pornography. The list goes on and on. These models pervade our culture because we don’t spend enough time playing, experimenting, and imagining how things might be otherwise. This is why we must look at those realms in our collective consciousness that privilege the imagination and the human capacity to create. Continuous engagement with artistic practices strengthens our imagination muscle. Arts education is essential, because it builds our ability to dream and imagine beyond our present condition.

How do we understand the idea of art?

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination

Etymology: early 13c., “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft,” from PIE *ar-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih “manner, mode;” Greek arti “just,” artios “complete, suitable,” artizein “to prepare;” Latin artus “joint;” Armenian arnam “make;” German art “manner, mode”), from root *ar- “fit together, join” (see arm (n.1)), which makes art etymologically akin to Latin arma “weapons.” 

What strikes me about the root of the word is how active it is. The words used to describe its core meaning are much more about a way of doing than about a thing you hang on the wall. Activist, art-educator, and nun Corita Kent describes “art” in the following way:

“To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word ART is to FIT TOGETHER and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit together we are creating—whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

Art as Dialogue

At the Brooklyn Museum I’ve had the privilege of working with art education professionals committed to the dialogical process ignited by the power of art. Part of our practice as educators is about continually reflecting on our practice to understand the ways in which we are or are not effective in creating educational experiences that reflect the beautiful struggle that a true social justice practice demands.  Much of what we do is to create opportunities for dialogues grounded in multi-sensory experiences with artworks. We do not attempt to deliver information-packed or curatorial talks to visitors (although these also have value). Rather, we ask audiences to interact with a piece and share what they see, what they feel, and we make them accountable for their interpretations by continually asking them “What do you see that makes you say that?”  We encourage self-reflection and the articulation of different perspectives. We introduce key pieces of information on the art or artist to add complexity and push the conversation deeper, but ultimately we recognize that the more opportunities diverse groups are given to look, listen, express, and wrestle with meaning, the stronger their ability (and our ability) to develop into ethical human beings, able to imagine a more humane society.

The Centrality of Art

Both art and social justice are better understood as verbs than as nouns. The essential power of both is unlocked by understanding them as processes. Yes, social justice is about low-income housing, desegregation of schools, tackling the criminal in-justice system, and defending immigrant rights. But it is only about these things because people have collectively reflected on lived experiences around these issues, and dialogued, and re-visited past assumptions, and come to realizations, and struggled to express ignored truths, and heard the truths of others, and from this process a vision emerges of what is needed. The concept of art can also, at its core, be understood as a process/approach towards learning and doing. Why are such disparate activities such as singing, painting, a poem, a movement, certain photographs, all grouped under the term “art”? I would argue that it is because they are all expressions that bridge our inner terrain to the outer world. And in this way, we are pushed to know ourselves, each other, and the world around us from perspectives that challenge us to see beyond ‘what is there.’ There is an intimate relationship between all authentic learning and Art. Within this context, a social justice perspective also requires us to expand and question traditional notions of “Fine Arts” and artistic “Canons”.

While my understanding of power, oppression, and revolution continues to expand and to gain greater and greater complexity, I find myself continually returning to Freire, even more than 20 years after I first encountered his writings. While some aspects of his ideas feel dated, there is still an intrinsic truth that he expresses that still resonates deeply with what I know to be true. “The object in presenting these considerations,” he states at the end of his opening chapter, “is to defend the eminently pedagogical” and here I would add–ARTISTIC, “character of the revolution.”

Art is not an addendum, a distraction, a pleasant byproduct, or even a tool to be used in service of the “real” work of political struggle for social justice. Art and art education are essential to social justice because social justice requires social imagination. Art is not a Renoir painting, just as social justice is not a march. Rather, both art and social justice are essentially pedagogical endeavors in that they hold the potential, through dialogue and the activation of personal and collective imagination, to transform our very beings and to transform the oppressive realities that engulf us. The combination of these elements–whether in an art museum, a community center, a classroom, or the streets–holds the potential to change the world.

Adjoa Jones de Almeida is the Director of Education at the Brooklyn Museum and is committed to utilizing arts education as a vehicle for personal and collective transformation.  She earned her Master’s from Columbia University/Teacher’s College in International Education Development and was a teacher, community organizer and arts educator prior to joining the Brooklyn Museum. She is a 2017 92Y/Women in Power Catherine Hannah Behrend Fellow in Visual Arts Management.